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The ongoing fight to improve human rights in Kazakhstan, a long time concern for the West and rights groups, is showing real signs of progress. Even some of the harshest critics of the country’s human rights record have acknowledged the “positive” steps being taken. This is a far cry from the not-too-distant past which saw the country’s record on human rights under constant attack, writes Colin Stevens.
Indeed, the European Parliament went so far as to adopt a resolution on February 11th 2021 calling on Kazakhstan to “end its broad violations of human rights”.
Today, though the EU has acknowledged Kazakhstan’s improvements regarding laws and policies vis-à-vis civil society.
Former UK Tory MEP Nirj Deva has said that “meaningful progress” has been made in Kazakhstan” while ex-European council president Donald Tusk has praised Kazakhstan’s “ambitious” reforms programme, including improvement of the rule of law and fundamental rights.
Improvements in the sphere of human rights come with the first anniversary of the signing of the landmark EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced cooperation agreement which covers areas such as human rights along with political dialogue and reforms, rule of law, justice, freedom and security, migration, trade, as well as economic and sustainable development.
President Tokayev has pledged to forge ahead with more reforms, including in the field of human rights, and has already overseen a whole raft of changes, including abolishing the death penalty.
But Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, cautions that there is still room for improvement, saying that in the field of human rights: “A lot of progress needs to be quickly achieved. Freedom of religion is one of those areas where some controversial laws should be revised and aligned to international standards. The US is putting in place a constructive policy in this regard with the establishment of the US-Kazakhstan Religious Freedom Working Group.
“Washington is also developing an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue (ESPD) and has engaged Kazakhstan on a range of issues, such as human rights, labour and religious freedom.”
He added: “President Tokayev should not miss this opportunity to restore the image of his country.”
Alberto Turkstra, of the European Institute for Asian Studies, says the president has shown the need for structural reforms, including the 44-member National Council on Public Trust (NCPT), comprising representatives from all walks of society, including human advocacy groups, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the ombudsman for the protection of entrepreneurs, political scientists, civil society representatives, journalists and other public figures.
Progress in this area is being made in various areas. For instance, Kazakhstan, the UN, and the EU are working together on a programme to educate Afghan women through which a select number of students can study in Kazakhstan..The initiative is expected to help create new opportunities for the women and their communities back in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, Kazakhstan last year adopted a new law on peaceful assemblies, continuing its path of “controlled democratisation” with more liberal legislation that analysts said is helping to develop strong multi-party democracy.
Capital punishment in Kazakhstan has been abolished for ordinary crimes though it is still permitted for crimes occurring in special circumstances (such as war crimes or terrorism) while the Kazak Parliament has toughened penalties for those found guilty of sexual and domestic violence. Jail sentences for people traffickers have also been increased to underline Kazakhstan’s determination to rid itself of such crimes.
Growing public worries over the accidents and injuries caused by drunk-driving sparked stronger prison terms and, in another move, children from poor families now receive a guaranteed social package, including free school meals and transportation to and from school.
Back in 2015, Kazakhstan was ranked a lowly 65th in the rule of law index but the country has since climbed six positions up the rankings.
Kazakhstan’s president has also delegated some of his powers to the Parliament, an initiative which is expected to create a stronger system of checks and balances and has won plaudits for supporting the co-existence of different cultures with the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, for instance, supporting nearly 200 centres where children and adults can study 30 different languages.
In an effort to improve its image specifically on human rights, the Commissioner for human rights (Kazakhstan’s equivalent of the EU ombudsman) has been established. Along with the National Centre for Human Rights, the commissioner is empowered to investigate human rights issues.
There is also now also a law that guarantees to NGOs free access to public, international and private financing allowing them to actively participate in the social and political development of the country.
Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki, who chairs the EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group in the European parliament, has welcomed the fact that Tokayev, is paying “special attention” to reducing these and other inequalities.
The authors of Kazakhstan at a Crossroads, a major analysis of Kazakhstan, pay tribute to the “significant effort” they say has been invested in “building an international reputation as a meeting point for the world’s major religions.”
The flagship project to this end is the Congress of World and Traditional Religions that meets every three years, bringing together senior figures from many of the world’s largest faith communities.
In their conclusions, the authors state: “Kazakhstan wants and expects not to be lumped in with its less successful Central Asian neighbours. With greater power (and prestige) must come greater responsibility, so it is entirely appropriate to hold Kazakhstan to a higher standard.”
Further comment comes from Simon Hewitt, a Junior Researcher at the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies, and its CEO Axel Goethals, who told this website, “As a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan is slowly moving towards a more open democratic system.”
But they caution: “This is a process which cannot happen overnight.”
Greens MEP Viola von Cramon partly agrees, saying: “With decreasing Russian influence and a progressively aggressive China, central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan are signalling some openness. It is a positive sign but we should not overestimate its implication.”
Commenting further on the post-Soviet country, Peter Stano, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that the EU “encourages Kazakhstan to avail of the advice and expertise” of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) “and to fully implement the recommendations made previously and any that may be forthcoming”.
Efforts to improve human rights come with the ever evolving progress also in EU-Kazakhstan co-operation.
The Enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (EPCA), which came into force almost one year ago, has opened the way to both a deepening and expansion of many ties between the EU and Kazakhstan.
Europe is the country’s main economic partner. Over 50% of its foreign trade is with the EU which, in turn, accounts for 48% of Kazak inward investment. There are about 4,000 companies with European participation and 2,000 joint ventures operating in Kazakhstan. Relaxing visa requirements has made travel easier and there has also been collaboration across a whole range of social and political issues.
A Kazakhstan government source said the EPCA has provided a positive framework to strengthen such links with the EU with increased co-operation now foreseen in a number of other areas, including innovation and green technologies, transport, logistics, education, energy and environmental protection.
Kazak foreign affairs minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said the EU’s advice and guidance had been important and was needed more than ever in the future, adding that he is “confident that we will see even more effective and diverse co-operation to the benefits of our citizens and the wider world”.